Leadership and the Sanctity of Death

Act I: Doomed to be Right

Imagine a doomsday cult in which the leader makes a doomsday prediction: most people in the world do not believe the prediction, but the cult has its followers who believe that the prediction is right. The leader and the followers attempt mass suicide on their doomsday while the rest of the world lives on. In the world of the cult, like the diegesis of a fictive work, the leader will never be wrong. The moment the cult has to face the prospects of being wrong, it ceases to exist, as would be the case if everyone in it dies. In the event a number of followers survive the mass suicide, they might all lose their faith, hence leading to the demise of the cult. Alternatively, some survivors could continue to be right through retrospective explanations: the prediction is right; it simply did not materialize because of certain new circumstances.

Paternalistic personalities and their followers, devout and willing, if blinded, often posit that leaders must do the right thing, as if they have the authority to decide for the world the single set of criteria determining what is right simply by conceitedly ignoring the existence of plurality altogether. They sound irrefutable. By definition, being right takes precedence over all else, including being popular. What does it matter if people do not like what you do when you are right? It is obviously their fault for not seeing that you are right. The claim here should not be distorted—it is never claimed that leaders cannot make decisions that are popular and right at the same time. If a person does the right thing and his actions happen to be popular, everyone ought to be contented. If a person does the right thing but most others are not agreeable to his actions, one simple implication is that the majority is wrong. An implicit extension of this implication is that the leader is wiser than those he leads; even though he is not popular with them, they benefit from his right decisions. Another implication is that he who does the right thing has done more than just the right thing—he is heroic, a person who does not succumb to popular pressure, one who is willing to be misunderstood and sacrifices popularity to do what is right; and surely, the inherent rhetoric goes, such a person deserves more respect than indecisive weaklings who are, in a word, wrong.

We might add that, in addition to repression, authoritarianism works through the cult of the leader who is Right and indulges on self-valorization through the claim to be Right. Conveniently omitted in the world of such a cult is the obvious and logical possibility that a person can make decisions that are both unpopular and unacceptable or so-called wrong. Unpopular, wrong, but propagated as the one and only right decision. When the myth of the singularity of “the” right thing, popular and unpopular ultimately also become meaningless categories. What is seemingly popular but unwelcome by a stubborn minority that has seeped through the blanket of social engineering becomes the Wrong, as would be the case if a doomsday cult manages to convert two-thirds of the world population. Simple-mindedness is renamed balanced thinking. Hogwash becomes the embodiment of rationality. Which is perhaps why we always have to be cautious with calls to be balanced and rational in this society of cognitive chaos.

Not many leaders claim to be always right although propaganda machines are often deployed to create the impression that they are. Clearly, leaders of all kinds do not bother to remind us that they are right every time they make a decision. We do not often see the Singapore government claiming that it is right to hold elections, for instance. In contrast, we are quite familiar with why it is right to have ridiculously huge GRCs and why the PAP is right to sue certain members of the opposition for defamation. The idea of being right is emphasized most when the possibility of being (judged as) wrong is at its greatest. When you are wrong, say that you are right and look like you are a wise, self-sacrificing hero-leader. It works wonders, especially when you have successfully suppressed the development of intelligence in those you lead.

It is pertinent for anyone who wishes to participate in any form of public discourse to (re)consider the dichotomy between right and wrong as well as to question the necessity of this particular schema which is anything but inevitable. Authoritarian rule characteristically, though not charismatically, cast matters ideologically in terms of right and wrong. In a repressive communist regime, revolution (of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie) is right. It is wrong to go against revolution. The state gets to decide what is revolutionary (right) and what is counter-revolutionary (wrong). What the state does will never fail to be revolutionary whereas the activities of the people always have the potential to be counter-revolutionary. If you bad-mouth an iconic leader, you must be counter-revolutionary, so you are wrong and you need to be punished. If you find your living conditions appalling, you are clearly buying into bourgeois values and need to be re-educated. But if the state is always right whether it decides to take a great leap forward without capitalism or if it decides to liberalize the economy.

On the other hand, people may jettison what is right/wrong in favor of what might be better with different factors explicitly taken into consideration. Decision-making may never escape from underlying guiding principles or ideology but instead of taking these as givens, they (especially the most entrenched ones) should be exposed to scrutiny. Economic growth is perhaps the most irrefutable right thing. Not many people bother to consider that how economic growth is calculated for the country may not reflect how many (few) people benefit from it and how many silent, stupefied lambs are sacrificed in the process of meeting statistical targets. Perhaps the beautiful track record on which the PAP takes immense pride is also the party’s most glaring disfigurement. Admittedly, scars are sexy to those who have developed a strange fetish.More than anything else, I would prefer to have leaders who know and are open about the fact that they cannot presume to know what is right, if I need leaders at all. (The mystification of leaders(hip) in our society inevitably involves the power inequalities of hierarchy even though this is often downplayed in rhetoric that makes hierarchies an invisible presences to facilitate the imposition of power, subjecting people to power but leading them into thinking that it actually does not exist.)

“Then we will never get anything done!” This is a typical defense when we try to call for an abandonment of the cult of the leader who is right. We are all too familiar with defense via presumptuous circularity: “More opposition parliamentarians? Then decision-making will be paralyzed because opposition members will stop the PAP from making the right decisions!”

The predictable conversation (or the lack of one) continues:

“But what if the so-called right decisions are against our interests?” we ask.

“They are the right decisions! You cannot expect everything to go your way. Look at our great track record of economic growth. We are right.”

“But why does my life seem to be getting from bad to worse?”

“We are doing the right thing. Let’s move on.”

We so badly need strong decisive leaders who love to claim to be servants. Self-serving, perhaps. People are blind to the paradox in the notion of a paternalistic service. Join the cult. Or be damned to the hell of eternal futility, where the fires of frustration we spit burn only ourselves. Trust our leaders to do the right thing, trust them to have done the right thing, even if you die from their right decisions.

Act II: Death to the Living

Maybe I am wrong, but, certainly, death is at times in the hands of the state.

It is right to have the death penalty. They deter crime. They serve a good purpose, even if the extent of their effectiveness is unknown. Another irrefutable truth from those who do right.

The death penalty can be distinguished from other punishments, including those that are often considered barbaric by modern standards, such as caning. When a person is fined, the thought of being fined may make him think twice about committing an offense. When a person is imprisoned for a crime, it may be argued that the punishment can help to prevent the person from committing the crime again after he is released (although not everyone would be convinced). Even when a criminal is imprisoned for the rest of his life with no possibility of parole, confining him to a prison ensures that he will no longer be able to commit crimes outside the boundaries of the given space.) When someone is caned, it is possible to claim that the severity of the punishment serves to prevent the person who is being punished from committing the same crime, even though not everyone is in favor of a punishment that inflicts bodily pain, preferring what they call rehabilitation. In these instances, laws and regulations are violated and punishments can be rationalized on the basis that their enforcement deter transgressors from repeating what they are not supposed to do. However, linking deterrence to the death penalty is somewhat different. The other punishments mentioned are understood as a way of preventing someone from transgressing again, however effective or ineffective they are: “I punish you so you will not do it again.” The usual punishment seeks to regulate the future behavior of transgressing parties under the assumption that they will be able to choose whether to repeat an act of transgression. This does not apply to the death penalty which is more properly characterized as “I punish you and you cannot do it again.” (Note that I am not phrasing it as “I punish you so that you cannot do it again.”) The death penalty is the only punishment that absolutely prevents the punished from committing crimes again. It is, thus, not supposed to deter the punished from committing the crime again, but, as the reasoning goes, to deter everyone else from committing a particular crime.

In Singapore (though not necessarily only in Singapore), there is another possible distinction between certain instances of the death penalty as it is justified by the notion of deterrence and other punishments. If a person is caned for vandalizing private property for example, the harm on others can easily be determined or observed. A person can be sentenced to death for being in possession of drugs or firearms. Any harm to self or to others does not have to be legally proven. In fact, it makes no difference even if it is proven beyond all doubt that no harm has been inflicted and no intention to engage in an act that could harm anyone was present when a person is caught in possession of drugs. Put next to punishments for other crimes, there is a sense that it is a punishment that is massively disproportionate in severity. Rape somebody and you will be punished by imprisonment and caning. Be caught in possession of drugs and you have to be killed even though any potential harm of the drugs on others has been prevented by your arrest. Possession can be equated to trafficking in a incredible leap of logic that can perhaps only be understood by lawmakers who do the right thing. If we imagine someone who is caught in possession of and actually has the intention to sell a drug, but it is his first and only time doing so, surely the person cannot have harmed anyone with drugs? It does not matter though. He has to die. And it is the right thing to do to kill him. People can be punished with what is arguably the most severe punishment of all without having effected any harm. But, once again, in a perverse twist of governmentality, the discourse of deterrence shifts from the punished to everyone else that is not punished. No harm might have been done directly or indirectly by he who is punished, but let us kill him to prevent others from causing potential harm.

It would appear that the death penalty, or at least as it is articulated via the discourse of deterrence, concerns itself more with those who do not die than with those who do. It is unpopular with those who do not believe in taking away lives from crimes committed. Those who who can but decide not abolish it say that it is the right thing to do. It is to protect the living. It is perhaps more so to regulate the behavior of the living. With doing the right thing being paramount and sacrosanct, every opinion for or against the death penalty is obliged to be presented as the singular right answer. I think so therefore it is right. And the signature of power of those who are committed to do right and be right: I think therefore it is.

Perhaps we should be reminded that no one has to be right and the ethics of being right is questionable. Perhaps we can take away lives and do the right thing (and let us remember that we usually speak of the right thing to do when it has the greatest potential to be wrong), but do we need to?

We know for a fact that the death penalty deterrence is never total deterrence in the sense that, there will always be more people committing crimes and being sentenced to death. The effectiveness of deterrence via the death penalty may be questionable, but few would claim that it does not work at all. Putting aside the tactics of deterring crime aside, let examine deterrence simply as an intended effect in relation to the death penalty. Deterrence works on the basis of the death penalty’s iterability. The death sentence can be pronounced and performed again and again, each time (of course) on a different individual. It is not simply the potential of the death penalty that deters. Rather, each time the death sentence is pronounced on a person, everyone else is reminded not to commit the given crime. Each time someone is hanged, each time the event is circulated via the media, the effect of deterrence is intensified by drilling it deeper into public consciousness. In this sense, deterrence cannot be absolute for if it were absolute, no one would commit crimes that are punishable by death. It is not just that, semantically, deterrence is not absolute (as we can only deter and there is no way we can prevent everyone from committing a certain crime ever), but also that if any given technique of deterrence does not fail at least occasionally, the notion of deterrence will fall apart. We arrive at an aporia: deterrence has to fail in order for it to work.

From another perspective, we see that a person is punished by death—ostensibly for the benefit of everyone else—in each instance of deterrence’s failure that is uncovered. Those punished by death serve as proxies through which the state reaches everyone else (including even those who are usually beyond its reach, such as foreigners), reminding them not to commit crimes whilst patiently waiting for them to do so. When they do so, they are punished. Even if the death penalty is not performed with utmost transparency, any aura of secrecy invites scrutiny. Various instances of capital punishment reach the people through the press, and these often involve individuals (known as murderers) who trespass on the sacred domain of death orchestration. There are even hushed avenues for us to call for the abolition of capital punishment, which themselves sustain attention on the death penalty. The orchestration of death is a sacred domain. Only the state can decide to take away a life or allow a deliberate act to end a life (as in the case of euthanasia). It is criminal for anyone else to consciously take away a life, even one’s own. The power to orchestrate death has to remain one in order to sustain the regulatory functions it serves on those who are living. It is not just a matter of preventing them from committing the same crimes. It generates public discourse, inviting people to debate about it. It is ultimately a signifier of the state’s hold over those who come within the reaches of its jurisdiction. The death penalty reminds the living of their life penalty, their lifelong penalty.

Epilogue of Errors

Those who depend on being right and are also trapped by the impulse and compulsion to be right. If the status quo is a state of right things being done, doing the right thing becomes an impediment to change for he who changes his mind opens himself to the question of whether he has been wrong all along. Change is not impossible but it is necessarily rare. Leaders who do the right things must take great pains to prove that they are not wrong when they do change their minds. Like cults generating a grand theory of why doomsday has been deferred, they must convince their followers that they have always been right and are right to change. Rather ironically, through such an exercise. doomsday cult leaders become more convinced than their followers that they are right. They buy what they sell.

The death penalty may not be right. But until the cult of leaders who do right decide that it is necessary to fabricate a new telos whilst whilst sitting on contradictions, change is unlikely. And it is not a big deal. The death penalty is a signifier and intensifier of a power of which they are very much a part to begin with. It is then left to those who do not have to be right to decide to shatter their leaders’ prerogative to be right.

[I am incomprehensible?] The reliance on others to make sense for you ensures your perpetual oppression. [Wrong?] Start imagining a space that away from (even if not totally) the rational absolute rights/wrongs from which you have learned to derive intense pleasure. Please. [Be constructive?] I am not keen on building a well around myself and sealing the exit with my own hands.

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